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Attack of the Rural Robots

Advanced Animations exports action figures from Stockbridge to Toyko Disneyland


Published October 22, 2008 at 5:47 a.m.

It’s not hard to cross Route 107 in Stockbridge. In this small town tucked in the vertical relief of the Green Mountains, whole minutes elapse between the shuddering passage of a down-shifting tractor-trailer and a leaf-peeper-packed Prius. Stand on the banks of the White River, and you can almost picture a lazy water wheel powering a grist mill.

What doesn’t come to mind in this rural outpost is anything like Advanced Animations, a high-tech design and manufacturing house that supplies theme parks, museums, casinos and retail outlets with life-like animatronics, sculptures and exhibits.

But there it is, set back from the road in a 40,000-square-foot complex that used to be the Stanley Rule and Level factory. The company, which has annual revenues of around $5 million, employs an unusual mix of 25 engineers, artists, sculptors, welders and machinists. They collaborate to bring imagination to life and then send their work out to clients such as Universal Studios, Tokyo Disneyland, FAO Schwarz and Madame Tussaud’s Museum in Las Vegas. Another side of the business, Advanced Exhibits, creates “edutainment” shows that tour science museums all over the world — such as the “Grossology” exhibit of “impolite” human-body science that was on display two summers ago at Burlington’s ECHO Center.

The company’s reception area looks like any other corporate waiting room, except for the poster of a Terminator cyborg glaring down on visitors with red eyes and the raccoon-sized sculpture of a dinosaur. My guide to this otherworldly place of employment is vice president of operations Bob Crean, 60, a wiry gentleman from Southern California, dressed in jeans and a candy-striped button-down shirt. He came east to get his Bachelor’s degree in engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and joined Advanced Animations in 1987.

A tour of the rambling, connected buildings starts with a quick peek into the big conference room where the staff recently met with executives from Universal Studios. The studio’s theme parks have been some of Advanced Animations’ best customers: The company has worked on “dark rides” for Men in Black, E.T. and Jurassic Park, among others.

We stroll down the hall to the sculpting studio, where a work in progress — an owl made of oil-based clay — sits perched on an eye-level pedestal, waiting for finishing strokes from one of the company’s sculptors.

Then it’s on to the computer-aided design area, where artists and engineers use programs such as Auto-CAD, Solid Works and Maya to do mechanical and amorphic-shape modeling. Crean pulls out a set of mechanical plans made on Solid Works and explains that this is the same software used by auto manufacturers to design moving parts.

Through the next door is the machine shop, a massive, hangar-like area with industrial-sized equipment. “We designed these in the computer,” Crean says, picking up a stack of water-cut metal components, “and then sent the CAD files out to a vendor, who makes perfect parts.” Most Advanced Animation products are made and assembled on-site, however — owing, Crean says, to the dearth of local manufacturers who can work according to the company’s specifications. But all that in-house talent makes Advanced Animations more self-sufficient.

“Watch your eyes,” Crean warns a few times, as we walk through the welding department. A welder sits at a low table working on an animatronic dolphin in the early stages of development. At this point, it looks like a resin-colored torpedo. The dolphin is destined for the upcoming annual trade show in Orlando put on by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. “It’s a mouthful,” Crean jokes, “and it’s something to behold.”

Advanced Animations generally has a display at the show, but this year the company’s owner, Peggy Toth, decided to add a twist by making the dolphin electric-powered. Pneumatically powered robots, which Advanced Animations also builds, can’t be operated without an air compressor and a building set up with the requisite hoses. The dolphin, by contrast, can be plugged into any wall outlet — a cheaper option for clients, but a bit more complicated for the designer.

In this case, Toth is stepping into the shoes of a typical client by requesting a unique creation. Tom Ring, the art director, must translate that vision into reality, and it’s not always easy.

“The client sometimes expects the product to do something,” he explains, “and I have to tell them, ‘We can’t really do that in this world, so we’re going to have to fudge it.’”

By “fudging it,” Ring means striking a compromise between mechanical demands and aesthetics, a task some artists find challenging. Artists who judge their work by its verisimilitude — its closeness to life — would have a tough time here, since animating an object almost always creates imperfections. A modern-day Leonardo DaVinci might thrive at Advanced Animations, whereas a Michelangelo, Ring speculates, might “have gotten really frustrated with us, saying, ‘Well, that doesn’t look right.’”

Ring, 46, grew up in Pennsylvania and has a Bachelor’s degree in illustration from Utah State University. He arrived at Advanced Animations in 1990 after freelancing in Burlington for a few months as a technical illustrator. His side interest, which he says has been crucial to his success here, is mechanical movement.

For the dolphin project, Ring watched dolphins swimming on the Internet and used Maya to create an animation profile for his coworkers to assess. Since nearly everything made here is a prototype — an original creation — a lot of unforeseen problems can crop up at the last minute. The dolphin, for instance, might move perfectly — but only without its skin, which can add 200 pounds and bog down the electric motors. “It doesn’t seem like art,” Ring says, “but in the end, the artist has to figure out how to make sure that it looks right and still works at the same time.”

Back on the tour, Crean leads us into a sort of robot storage room. The most impressive thing here is an 8-foot-tall Terminator wielding a Gatling gun. Crean powers it up, and it starts to move fluidly and speak in a faux Arnold Schwarzenegger voice: “I am a T-70 cyborg,” it barks. “I’ve been teleported here from Universal Studios, where I’m featured in the famous T2 3D Battle Across Time attraction. I’m a product of Advanced Animations, built for active duty, 24/7, 365, with no problemos. Right, baby? Hasta la vista, problemos!”

“This is just a spare one we built out of extra parts,” Crean says after turning the T-70 off. “Pretty cool, isn’t it?”

This robot is no clunky machine: It moves in real time with the words it’s speaking. That choreography is Ron Systo’s job, and it came naturally to him after a childhood spent doing puppetry. Systo, 45, is a systems engineer from Rutland who’s been at Advanced Animations for 20 years. Tall, with rimless glasses and a goatee, Systo has to make sure all the pieces work together to create a semblance of life and emotions.

Systo’s office has enough space for a mad scientist to indulge his curiosities. He’s watched over by “Dr. Nose-it-all,” a robotic otolaryngologist that’s part of the “Healthworks” exhibit Advanced Animations is making for a museum in Tupelo, Mississippi. Systo uses his laptop to move switches and sliders that synchronize the pneumatic valves with the words from the voice actor, then saves the data to an SD card and plugs it into the control box beneath the robot.

What in the world are these state-of-the-art gadgets doing in Stockbridge? It’s pure happenstance, says Crean. The company’s two founders, Bob Marquis and Dan Long, sold it to Warner Communications and retired to Stockbridge. When the megacorp experienced financial difficulties, the founders bought Advanced Animations back and relocated it near their new homes. After going public for a while, it’s now owned by Toth, who works in the Detroit office and manages the touring shows.

Asked how the rural location affects the company’s ability to attract business, Crean concludes it neither helps nor hurts. “In terms of clients,” he says, “we have been passed over for a competitor who’s much closer to the client. But for every client that might not want to travel, there are some that love the idea of coming to Vermont.” Being in Stockbridge didn’t stop the company from making a life-sized animatronic Holstein for the Billy Graham Library and Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina. The bovine, named Bessie, tells visitors to get “mooving” — in a Southern accent. It’s the first thing they see when they walk in.

The company’s greatest challenge, Crean admits, is finding good local employees — preferably with 3D CAD and mold-making skills. And Crean is currently looking for a “MacGyver-type person” to go on the road with the “Grossology” tour three times a year.

How did he land his job at Advanced Animations? Crean used a time-tested technique. “I just basically found out they were here and knocked on the door.”

Now you know.